Winship Herr on WSBS: A Four-Year Graduate Program
  Winship Herr     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Jul 2004

Absolutely, Jim Watson, without a doubt. In fact, I remember very vividly about the issue of the four-year program because Jim said we need a four-year program. And I, in fact, was not so much in favor of a four-year program. I had spent five and a half years in graduate school. I had loved being in graduate school. I didn’t see the point of rushing through graduate school.

You know, Jim said four years. Then I remember very vividly a faculty meeting where, in fact, where everybody was invited—it was not a Rolling Five meeting. It was a faculty meeting. I recall that the issue of how long it should be came up. There were debates, it should be this, it should be that. I think that at the end of the decision, you know, Bruce was there and such, it was that, well, it should be about four a half, five years. And I said, you know, it’s very fine and dandy for us to sit here and say what we think but Jim Watson thinks it should be four years. And Bruce said, well, I’ll talk to Jim.

Time went on and I never asked how the discussion went with Jim and just—I had on one side sort of it should be four and a half years and on the other side, Jim was saying it should be four years. If you look at some of our early literature, now we’re skipping ahead quite a bit because we’re talking about early fall of 1999. But this was over a period of time. It just sort of settled there.

We would say things like, it should take four to four a half years, or approximately four years, or things like that in the literature because I was trying to balance. Then one day I was in Jim’s office and Jim said to me, he said, what is this four or four a half years. Our program is a four-year program. I said, well, the faculty discussions, you know, four a half years….and he said, Winship, it’s a four year program. If anybody has a problem with a four-year program, send them to me. That was the last that I heard of it. It was a four-year program.

It was one of the best things that ever happened about the school because it made a statement and it made us different from other programs. What was important was not to mimic everyone else, but to make ourselves different so that the few people who liked what we had to sell would come.

Well, I think it [the decision of a four-year program] was very simple. I mean, when I say I thought it should be longer, I only thought of myself. I didn’t think of, you know, students in general or Cold Spring Harbor. So that was only a personal opinion and I wasn’t going to let that last very long.

Jim is very persuasive. He said that he had been in graduate school for three years, so four years was plenty. He said it’s taking too long. We can’t attract students into biological science if it takes so long to be able to do their own thing. He also said that it’s basically that people are viewing the PhD incorrectly. They view the PhD as a productivity exercise rather than a learning experience.

What he emphasized was two things; the purpose of the PhD should be to learn how to do science and to figure out what you want to work on as a postdoc. I think, sort of in his own example, Salvador Luria probably . taught him how to do science and also his interactions with Max Delbrück and others [such as] Renato Dulbecco. He figured out that what he wanted to do was to figure out the structure of the gene. As a postdoc he was in his mind going to figure out the structure of the gene, which ended up being the structure of DNA and the double helix.

So he would always say—I would have him talk to the students every fall when they came in and he would tell them, you know, what you should do, learn how to do science and figure out why you are ______interesting areas that you want to work on as a postdoc when you can do your own thing. I didn’t have much trouble with a four-year program. Actually another element to the four-year program that was attractive is that Cold Spring Harbor has always seen itself as an international institution and from the beginning. Its graduate program probably is attractive not just only to Americans, but also to people from around the world. We were particularly interested in seeing whether we could attract Europeans to Cold Spring Harbor. And Europeans—in Britain, for example, a PhD is only three years. They, of course, start at a more advanced level. So that created an issue that we had to deal with; how to be able to get graduate students from the United States who have done less experience having a masters versus the Europeans who have more experience and they don’t want to spend so long. And that’s actually built into the curriculum.

So I think that the four-year issue was not that big an issue. It was not an issue for us to decide to do it. What was a big issue was whether people believed we could do it, which I think is an important factor in the success of the school.

Winship Herr, director of the University of Lausanne School of Biology and member of EMBO. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of California in 1974 and Ph.D. for studies on recombinant retroviruses in leukemogenic mice with Walter Gilbert from Harvard University in 1982. He completed his postdoctoral research studies in Cambridge (England) with Frederick Sanger and with Joe Sambrook in Cold Spring Harbor. After that he joined the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory faculty in 1984. From 1994 till 2002 he was an assistant director of the Laboratory and founding dean of the Watson School of Biological Sciences from 1998 till 2004. He is a professor of the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne.

Winship Herr is a former National Science Foundation predoctoral fellow, Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, Helen Hay Whitney postdoctoral fellow, and Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Biological Sciences.

More Information: UNIL